Even before protests sparked by the death of George Floyd began to unfold across the nation, Norfolk Academy faculty were posing questions and seeking answers about how to create a school where all students experience a strong sense of belonging.
The structured inquiry in the 2019-20 academic year was part of the work of the Pluralism Committee of the school's current strategic plan, Creating a Just Society: Integrity, Leadership, and Pluralism.
The work of the Pluralism Committee, which involves 27 teachers, touched on all areas of school life, including both an examination of current practices and the potential for new initiatives. The school uses the term “pluralism" as a way of expressing the goal of listening to and including diverse voices in order to create a stronger, healthier, more caring and loving school culture.
The national movement and mobilization against racism and injustice brought even more purpose and gravity to the Pluralism Committee's work. In early June, after Headmaster Dennis Manning released a Statement to the Community, “Creating a Just Society," he asked the faculty leaders of the Pluralism Committee to present the group's work so far.
The committee chairs, who had also engaged in conversations with current students and alumni throughout June, presented an update to the headmaster and then to the directors of all three divisions.
The presentation focused on an array of initiatives that could be explored and pursued as long-term strategies. A few highlights:
Curricular: Align the curriculum with the school's Diversity, Equity, and Justice Statement; provide ongoing professional development to support curricular changes; measure progress toward alignment.
Co-curricular: Look in a meaningful way at student organizations, their position in our school, and their potential to create a sense of belonging for all students. Consider programs and opportunities that help students understand and appreciate their own and others’ identities.
Outreach: Seek to recruit a more diverse faculty through a multi-year strategy and plan, increased support for new faculty, and better communication about the school and its role within the region; use the school's resources to be a forum for robust, solution-oriented discussions around key issues in Hampton Roads.
Culture of Belonging: Enrich the school culture and environment to make all students feel more welcome; establish sensitivity/cultural competency training for faculty and students. Review and enhance programming for school assemblies, chapel, and other school rituals to create a stronger spirit and sense of belonging. In addition, Upper School Multicultural Day for the upcoming academic year will focus on social justice.
The committee closed the presentation with a question: What are the benefits of moving Pluralism initiatives forward? One answer to that question: “We more fully live our school's Philosophy: 'to prepare students to become ultimately useful and responsible citizens of a democracy and to help our students create a just society.' "
Beyond the committee's work, the school's faculty are working this summer to explore new approaches to teaching effectively about combating racism and injustice. More than 35 faculty members participated in a three-part online workshop with Dr. Liza Talusan, “Engaging in Diversity, Inclusion and Equity for Organizational Change." The workshop was organized by the Virginia Association of Independent Schools (VAIS), and more than 500 teachers from schools across the state participated.
Norfolk Academy teachers who joined the workshop are planning to have an online meeting to explore how the workshop strategies could apply to Norfolk Academy. In addition, faculty and staff are pursuing summer reading related to advancing social justice and combating racism in America; the two books, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (nonfiction) and Underground Railroad (fiction) will be the springboard for professional development related to pluralism throughout the academic year and beyond.
Mr. Manning emphasized the school's long-term commitment to the work of educating teachers and students about diversity, equity, and justice. “With our strategic plan, the Board of Trustees, in partnership with the administration and faculty, is committed to this essential work and calling," he said. “We must first educate ourselves as adults in order to best prepare children, the next generation of leadership, to improve and elevate the world they are inheriting. We must all become more responsible, moral citizens — so that together, all generations are best equipped to create a more just society.”